The dawn of a new year is a traditional time to address our excesses—whether it’s too many calories, too much spending or too much screen time. This year, several Monterey Bay communities are ringing in 2019 with newly adopted resolutions to cut back on single-use plastic.
In December 2018, the city of Monterey voted to limit the use of disposable plastic service ware in food establishments throughout the city. Earlier in the month, Santa Cruz County adopted a new law targeting single-use plastic packaging for personal care products in the hospitality industry.
Both laws aim to curtail waste and protect Monterey Bay from plastic pollution. They’re part of a global wave of action, from the local to national levels, to slow the flow of plastic from land to sea.
Our growing plastic problem
Scientists estimate that around 9 million tons of plastic make their way from land to sea every year. That’s like dumping a garbage truck full of plastic into the ocean every minute, injuring marine animals that mistake plastic for food or get tangled in it.
If we don’t make changes, scientists say, the rate of ocean plastic pollution will double by 2025. Manufacturers are producing more plastic than ever before, and our ability to recycle it just isn’t keeping up. The Royal Statistical Society recently shined a spotlight on the gap: Its International Statistic of 2018 is 90.5 percent—the proportion of plastic waste that has never been recycled.
Governments around the world, from the local to national levels, are addressing the problem through new laws to restrict single-use plastic products, improve waste management and protect the ocean from plastic pollution. In the long term, these actions support a transition away from single-use plastic, toward more ocean-friendly alternatives.
Monterey embraces greener food packaging
The city of Monterey’s new law, which takes effect on Earth Day 2019, requires all disposable food service ware to be compostable or recyclable. The law also eliminates plastic straws, with an important exemption for people who need them.
“One of the main challenges with plastic material is that it is often used for a short amount of time,” the city staff report states, “but then remains persistent in the environment or in landfills…often longer than a human lifespan.”
Erin Eastwood, policy specialist at the Aquarium, spoke up in support of the ordinance. “We are privileged to have some of the most beautiful and iconic marine wildlife and habitats on the planet right off our shore, which help drive our economy and enrich our way of life,” she said. “We have a responsibility to care for these resources. By taking actions to limit the sources of plastic pollution, the city of Monterey and the Monterey business community are proving again how we are model stewards of our cherished coastline.”
Two other cities in the Monterey Bay region, Carmel-by-the-Sea and Santa Cruz, have approved similar restrictions on single-use plastic food service ware.
Santa Cruz hospitality goes blue
The unanimous Santa Cruz County Board of Supervisors vote will eliminate single-use personal care products from hotels. motels and vacation rentals in the unincorporated county by the end of 2020. Under the new law, these businesses are required to replace mini plastic bottles of shampoo, conditioner, lotion and body gel with larger bottles or bulk dispensers.
The county worked closely with the local hospitality industry to shape the ordinance. The two-year grace period gives businesses time to use up existing supplies and switch to ocean-friendlier alternatives.
“Environmental protection is a core value of Santa Cruz County. Tourism is one of our leading industries, and many of our visitors come for Monterey Bay and our pristine beaches,” said Supervisor Zach Friend. “Single-use plastics have dire consequences for these ecosystems and threaten our local economy, and we must act locally to protect them.”
Barbara Meister, the Aquarium’s director of public affairs, praised the action. “It’s encouraging to see Santa Cruz County working together with the hospitality community to address ocean plastic pollution,” she said. “We applaud the county, and its hospitality industry, for their leadership.”
American cities and states step up
Monterey and Santa Cruz County are part of a growing wave of governments—at local, state and national levels—taking action on plastic pollution to create a healthier home for ocean wildlife, and a cleaner planet for our children.
In 2014, California enacted a ban on single-use plastic shopping bags at large stores. When out-of-state plastic bag manufacturers forced the issue to a statewide referendum in 2016, voters—with the Aquarium’s encouragement—upheld the ban.
Hawaii has what amounts to a de facto statewide ban, with the state’s most populous counties prohibiting non-biodegradable plastic carryout bags. More than a dozen U.S. cities, including Chicago, Austin, Seattle, Boston and Washington, D.C., have implemented similar bans or fees on plastic bags.
More recently, cities and states are shifting their attention to disposable plastic straws. This year, California passed the Straws On Request bill, prohibiting dine-in restaurants from automatically serving plastic straws, while making straws available to those who ask for them.
Close to a dozen cities along the California coast—from Monterey to Malibu, San Luis Obispo to Oakland—have restricted plastic straws, joining cities nationwide, like Seattle and Miami Beach.
As plastic pollution piles up on beaches, riverbanks and in the ocean, nations around the world are increasingly taking action. In 2002, Bangladesh became the first country to ban lightweight plastic bags. Since then, countries on every continent have restricted plastic bags—and some have taken further steps, with laws targeting other problematic plastic products. Here’s a partial list of plastic policies by country
“We’re seeing this surge of global action because organizations and individuals are raising awareness of the magnitude of the problem, and its impacts on the ocean,” says Aimee David, the Aquarium’s director of ocean conservation policy strategies.
“People are really waking up to this issue, making changes in their own lives, and sending that signal to businesses and to government officials. That’s a big reason for hope.”
Businesses do their part
Governments aren’t the only ones making moves to tackle ocean plastic pollution. Major businesses—including Ikea, Disney and foodservice giant Aramark—have announced initiatives to reduce single-use plastic products like straws, bags and utensils.
People may notice less disposable plastic along their travels: American Airlines, Alaska Airlines and Royal Caribbean are among the transportation companies ditching plastic straws and stirrers. Hi Fly, a Portuguese airline, just rolled out the world’s first passenger flight without single-use plastic. Plastic straws are also disappearing from hotel chains like Marriott, Hyatt and Hilton. Some Marriott hotels are voluntarily phasing out mini bottles of personal care products, too.
Dunkin’ Donuts and McDonald’s have announced plans to replace polystyrene foam cups with paper alternatives; and Starbucks has launched a new strawless lid in its commitment to eliminate single-use plastic straws.
Leading the way to a plastic-free ocean
Aquariums like ours—which work to protect the aquatic wildlife and ecosystems most impacted by plastic pollution—are walking our talk. The Monterey Bay Aquarium and 21 partner aquariums across the U.S. have already eliminated plastic straws and disposable plastic shopping bags; our partner aquariums are working to join us in removing plastic beverage bottles as well.
You can make a difference, too, by resolving to cut everyday sources of disposable plastic this year. One small step is to skip the straws you don’t need: Take the pledge here, and spread the word on social media.
—Kera Abraham Panni
Featured photo: Sunrise over tidepools along Monterey Bay.
Learn more about the Aquarium’s work to tackle ocean plastic pollution.